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Full text of "Firstborn"

THE FIRSTBORN 



Laurie Lee 



8?e.914 
L47nf 



€.? 



UNIVERSITY 
OF FLORIDA 
LIBRARIES 




COLLEGE LIBRARY 



Digitized by tine Internet Archive 

in 2012 witii funding from 

LYRASIS IVIembers and Sloan Foundation 



http://archive.org/details/firstbornOOIeel 



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THE FIRSTBORN 



By the same Ant ho?' 

CIDER WITH ROSIE 

Travel 
A ROSE FOR WINTER 

Poetry 
THE SUN MY MONUMENT 
THE BLOOM OF CANDLES 
MY MANY-COATED MAN 



THE 
FIRSTBORN 



Laurie Lee 



I 



1964 

WILLIAM MORROW & COMPANY 
NEW YORK 



Published in America by 

William Morrow & Company 

New York 




@ Laurie Lee, 1963 

Printed in Great Britain by 

Clarke & Sherwell Ltd 

Northampton 



To Jesse's Mother 




% 




SHE was born in the autumn and was a late fall in my 
life, and lay purple and dented like a little bruised plum, 
as though she'd been lightly trodden in the grass and 
forgotten. 

Then the nurse lifted her up and she came suddenly alive, 
her bent legs kicking crabwise, and her first living gesture 
was a thin wringing of the hands accompanied by a far- 
out Hebridean lament. 

This moment of meeting seemed to be a birthtime for 
both of us; her first and my second life. Nothing, I knew, 
would be the same again, and I think I was reasonably 
shaken. I peered intently at her, looking for familiar signs, 
but she was convulsed as an Aztec idol. Was this really my 
daughter, this purple concentration of anguish, this blind 
and protesting dwarf .'^ 

Then they handed her to me, stiff and howling, and I 
held her for the first time and kissed her, and she went still 
and quiet as though by instinctive guile, and I was in- 
stantly enslaved by her flattery of my powers. 

Only a few brief wrecks have passed since that day, but 
already IVe felt all the obvious astonishments. New-born, 
of course, she looked already a centenarian, tottering on 
the brink of an old crone's grave, exhausted, shrunken, 
bald as Voltaire, mopping, mowing, and twisting wrinkled 
claws in speechless spasms of querulous doom. 

But with each day of survival she has grown younger 



THE FIRSTBORN 

and fatter, her face filling, drawing on life, every breath 
of real air healing the birth-death stain she had worn so 
witheringly at the beginning. 

Now this girl, my child, this parcel of will and warmth, 
fills the cottage with her obsessive purpose. The rhythmic 
tides of her sleeping and feeding spaciously measure the 
days and nights. Her frail self-absorption is a commanding 
presence, her helplessness strong as a rock, so that I find 
myself listening even to her silences as though some great 
engine was purring upstairs. 

When awake, and not feeding, she snorts and gobbles, 
dryly, like a ruminative jackdaw, or strains and groans and 
waves her hands about as though casting invisible 
nets. 

When I watch her at this I see her hauling in life, 
groping fiercely with every limb and muscle, working 
blind at a task no one can properly share, in a darkness 
where she is still alone. 

She is of course just an ordinary miracle, but is also the 
particular late wonder of my life. So each night I take her 
to bed like a book and lie close and study her. Her dark 
blue eyes stare straight into mine, but off-centre, not 
seeing me. 

Such moments could be the best we shall ever know — 
these midnights of mutual blindness. Already, I suppose, I 
should be afraid for her future, but I am more concerned 
with mine. 

I am fearing perhaps her first acute recognition, her first 
questions, the first man she makes of me. But for the 
moment Tm safe; she stares idly through me, at the 
pillow, at the light on the wall, and each is a shadow of 



THE FIRSTBORN 

purely nominal value and she prefers neither one to the 
other . . . 

Meanwhile as I study her I find her early strangeness 
insidiously claiming a family face. 

Here she is then, my daughter, here, alive, the one I 
must possess and guard. A year ago this space was empty, 
not even a hope of her was in it. Now she's here, brand 
new, with our name upon her : and no one will call in the 
night to reclaim her. 

She is here for good, her life stretching before us, 
twenty-odd years wrapped up in that bundle; she will 
grow, learn to totter, to run in the garden, run back, and 
call this place home. 

Or will she ? Looking at those weaving hands and compli- 
cated ears, the fit of the skin round that delicate body, I can't 
indulge in the neurosis of imagining all this to be merely a 
receptacle for Strontium 90. The forces within her seem 
much too powerful to submit to a blanket death of that kind. 

But she could, even so, be a victim of chance ; all those 
quick lively tendrils seem so vulnerable to their own reck- 
lessness — surely shell fall on the fire, or roll down some 
crevice, or kick herself out of the window ? 

I realise I'm succumbing to the occupational disease, the 
father-jitters or new-parenthood-shakes, expressed in: 
"Hark, the child's screaming, she must be dying." Or, "She's 
so quiet, d'you think she's dead ?*' 

As it is, my daughter is so new to me still that I can't 
yet leave her alone. I have to keep on digging her out of 
her sleep to make sure that she's really alive. 

She is a time-killing lump, her face a sheaf of masks 
which she shuffles through aimlessly. One by one she 



THE FIRSTBORN 

reveals them, while I watch eerie rehearsals of those 
emotions she will one day need; random, out-of-sequence 
but already exact, automatic but strangely knowing — a 
quick pucker of fury, a puff of ho-hum boredom, a beaming 
after-dinner smile, perplexity, slyness, a sudden wrinkling 
of grief, pop-eyed interest, and fat-lipped love. 

It is little more than a month since I was handed this 
living heap of expectations, and I can feel nothing but 
simple awe. 

What have I got exactly.'^ And what am I going to do 
with her t And what for that matter will she do with me ^ 

I have got a daughter, whose life is already separate 
from mine, whose will already follows its own directions, 
and who has quickly corrected my woolly preconceptions 
of her by being something remorselessly different. She is 
the child of herself and will be what she is. I am merely 
the keeper of her temporary helplessness. 

Even so, with luck, she can alter me; indeed, is doing so 
now. At this stage in my life she will give me more than 
she gets, and may even later become my keeper. 

But if I could teach her anything at all — by unloading 
upon her some of the ill-tied parcels of my years — Vd like 
it to be acceptance and a holy relish for life. To accept with 
gladness the fact of being a woman — when she'll find all 
nature to be on her side. 

If pretty, to thank God and enjoy her luck and not start 
beefing about being loved for her mind. To be willing to 
give pleasure without feeling loss of face, to prefer charm 
to the vanity of aggression, and not to deliver her powers 
and mysteries into the opposite camp by wishing to 
compete with men. 

10 



thp: firstborn 

In this way, I believe — though some of her sisters may 
disapprove — she might know some happiness and also 
spread some around. 

And as a brief tenant of this precious and irreplaceable 
world, I'd ask her to preserve life both in herself and 
others. To prefer always Societies for Propagation and 
Promotion rather than those for the Abolition or Preven- 
tion of. 

Never to persecute others for the sins hidden in herself, 
nor to seek justice in terms of vengeance; to avoid like a 
plague all acts of mob-righteousness ; to take cover when- 
ever flags start flying; and to accept her faults and frus- 
trations as her own personal burden, and not to blame them 
too often, if she can possibly help it, on young or old, 
whites or coloureds, East, West, Jews, Gentiles, Tele- 
vision, Bingo, Trades Unions, the City, school-milk, or 
the British Railways. 

For the rest, may she be my ow^n salvation, for any 
man's child is his second chance. In this role I see her 
leading me back to my beginnings, reopening rooms Fd 
locked and forgotten, stirring the dust in my mind by re- 
asking the big questions — as any child can do. 

But in my case, perhaps, just not too late; she persuades 
me there inay yet be time, that with her, my tardy but 
bright-eyed pathfinder, I may return to that wood which 
long ago I fled from, but which together we may now 
enter and know. 



11 



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